Aisha Sasha John at a reading at UTSC on January 24. JENNA HUM/THE VARSITY

Aisha Sasha John has been appointed UTSC’s new writer-in-residence.

John is a Canadian poet and singing dancer. She attended the University of Toronto for her Bachelor of Arts in African Studies and Semiotics before moving on to complete a master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. John returns to U of T having published three poetry books: The Shining MaterialTHOU, and last year’s I have to live.

John brings to campus her energy and mesmerizing poetry. The Shining Material is John’s first published poetry collection. The collection calls to mind self-portraiture. In an interview with Kim Minkus for The Capilano Review, John remarked that she uses self-portraiture to get over “discomfort with using my own experience in my work.”

At the same time, John’s poems transcend self-portraiture by employing a call-and-response format, which allows the reader to connect with her work. “My intention was more that we all act as a unit, a unit of parts: call/inhale; response/exhale,” she told Minkus.

Her second collection, THOU, approaches a different style of poetry, but it still remains true to her experiences. In this collection, John exchanged the call-and-response for a longer format. The book is split into two poems: “Physical” and “The Book of You.”

This collection explores the space between oneself and others, continuing to rely on John’s personal experiences while investigating the idea that a multiplicity of ‘yous’ exist. THOU has been highly praised and was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, as well as for the ReLit Poetry Award.

John’s most recent collection is I have to live. The title is repeated as a mantra throughout the collection. Its poems are short and simple in style, exploring themes of existence and survival.

The book is divided into seven sections and exhibits cohesiveness throughout. Some poems might explore the ecstasy of dance, while others describe mundane, everyday jobs. This juxtaposition creates a wide-ranging account of what it means to live.

In an interview with Aliya Pabani for CANADALAND, John said, “I am interested in experiential knowledge, things that I experience myself. That, for me, is the juice.” John spoke to the experience of joy “that has sustained [her ancestors] and allows [her] to be here.”

John, who is Black, describes her writing as a way of honouring her ancestors. “When I think about enslavement and rape and physical abuse and the kinds of conditions that my ancestors recently have endured, and I think about the fact that I’m a singing dancer… I think that I have to honour them,” she told Pabani.

John’s collections transform the experience of living into poetry, emphasizing the beauty of being alive. To bring these experiences and lessons back to U of T, she will be hosting readings and workshops in addition to holding regular office hours to help students with their own craft.

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